Upper view of professional backstroke movementIn the initial position, the swimmer lies
flat on his back, arms stretched forward, and legs extended backwards.
In backstroke, the arms contribute most of the forward movement. The arm stroke consists
of two main parts: the power phase (consisting of three separate parts) and the recovery.
The arms alternate so that always one arm is underwater while the other arm is recovering.
One complete arm turn is considered one cycle. From the initial position, one arm sinks
slightly under water and turns the palm outward start the Catch phase (first part of the
power phase). The hand enters downward about ten inches, catching the water.
During the power phase the hand follows a semi-circular path from the Catch to the side of
the hip. The palm is always facing away from the swimming direction, and the elbow always
points downward towards the bottom of the pool. This is done so that both the arms and the
elbow can push the maximum amount of water back in order to push the body forward. At the
height of the shoulders the upper and lower arms should have its maximum angle of about 90
degrees. This is called the Mid-Pull of the power phase.
The Mid-Pull phase consists of pushing the palm of the hand as far down as possible with
the fingers pointing upward. Again, the goal is to push the body forward against the
water. At the very end of the Mid-Pull, the palm flaps down for a last push forward down
to a depth of 45 cm, creating the Finish of the Power phase. Besides pushing the body
forward this also helps with the rolling back to the other side as part of the body
movement. During the power phase, the fingers of the hand can be slightly apart, as this
will increase the resistance of the hand in the water due to turbulence.
To prepare for the recovery phase, the hand is rotated so that the palms point towards the
legs and the thumb side points upwards. At the beginning of the recovery phase of the one
arm, the other arm begins its power phase. The recovering arm is moved in a semicircle
straight over the shoulders to the front. During this recovery, the palm rotates so that
the small finger enters the water first and the palms point outward. After a short gliding
phase, the cycle repeats with the preparation for the next power phase.
A variant is to move both arms synchronized and not alternating, similar to an upside down
butterfly stroke. This is easier to coordinate, and the peak speed during the combined
power phase is faster, yet the speed is much slower during the combined recovery. The
average speed will usually be less than the average speed of the alternating stroke.
Another variant is the old style way of swimming backstroke, where the arm movement formed
a complete circle in a windmill type pattern. However, this style is nowadays no longer
used for competitive swimming, as a lot of energy is spent on pushing the body up and down
instead of forward. Furthermore, the added strain on the shoulder is considered less than
ideal and can lead to injuries.
It is also possible to move only one arm at a time, where one arm moves through the power
and recovery phases while the other arm rests. This is slow, but it is used frequently to
teach students the movement, as they have to concentrate on only one arm.
The leg movement in backstroke is similar to the flutter kick in front crawl. They make a
small contribution to the forward speed, yet are very significant for stabilizing the
The leg stroke is also alternating, with one leg sinking down straight to about 30 degree
out of the horizontal. From this position the leg makes a fast kick upward, slightly
bending the knee at the beginning and then stretching it again in the horizontal. However,
there are also frequent variants with four or only two kicks per cycle. Usually, sprinters
tend to use 6 kicks per cycle, whereas long distance swimmer may use less.
It is also possible to use a breaststroke kick or a butterfly (dolphin) kick, although
this is rare except the butterfly kick after the start and the turns. Breaststroke kicks
are most comfortable if the arms are used synchronized, as the breaststroke kick has
difficulty to compensate for a rolling movement due to alternating arm cycles. The
butterfly kick can be done slightly to one side depending on the rolling of the body.
Breathing in backstroke is very easy, as the mouth and nose are almost always over water.
Competitive swimmers breathe in through the mouth during the recovery of one arm, and
breathe out through the mouth and nose during the pull and push phase. This is done to
clear the nose of water.
Due to the asynchronous movement of the arms, there is a roll of the body around its own
axis. This is normal and helps swimming effectively. The overall position of the body is
straight in the horizontal to reduce drag. Beginners frequently let their posterior sink
too low and increase drag, because to avoid this the upper legs have to be moved to the
extreme down position at each kick even with a little help by the back and the foot tips
have to be fixed in the extreme lower position. And the head is held out of the water to
act as a counter-weight.
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